Suburban Soliloquy #85


In 1977 I was a newlywed in New York City and desperate for employment. I spent my days crisscrossing Manhattan with an eye out for opportunity or ideas. I was also looking for a bottle of my favorite Croft Original (Fine Old) Pale Cream Sherry to bring home and console me at the day's end. Despite Manhattan being Manhattan, no one was carrying my sherry. Everywhere instead was to be found the ubiquitous Harveys Bristol Cream, which I regarded as inferior. Determined to have my sherry, if not employment, I had contacted Croft's importer/distributor and learned they carried it at Pauillac's Spirits - which is really not the name, but I am withholding the name for reason that will become apparent.

While I was in the shop, complimenting them on their selection and for being the only folks in town to sell my sherry, I got to talking with Mr Pauillac's sister - not her real name - a very vivacious and pleasant looking young woman. We talked wine and she was impressed with my knowledge and manners. I said I would have enjoyed working in a place like theirs and she said there was very likely a job opening. I came back another day and met and shook hands with Mr Pauillac himself. He stood rigid, offering a limp hand to shake as if mine was dirty. I found myself employed as a wine salesman at $3.00 an hour. At the end of my first day of work I went home with a bottle of Saint-Julien, 1971 Chateau Glana La Rose, priced $3.99 before my 20% discount.

Mr Pauillac was a tall man of elegant appearance, a pretentious man given to frequent bursts of frightful temper regardless of his store being crowded with customers. He could present himself with considerable dignity, yet in private he was a vulgar man. He hated his brother-in-law whom he had working for him. The brother-in-law was a pompous ass who shirked work and acted as if he owned the business. I quickly learned to dislike them both.

I did not like Mr Pauillac's mother. She made no secret of thinking me distrustful. Whenever I was assigned to the cash register, if she made an appearance, she'd vociferate for all the shoppers to hear how I was not to be trusted near the cash register. She would chase me away. I once made the mistake of calling her by her first name, to which she berated me in front of customers not to do again for we were not friends. She was right to correct me because I, too, felt we were not friends, but she was wrong to correct me in that manner.

Happily, Mr Pauillac's sister was not my only friend in this family business. There was also Mr Pauillac's father, a short rotund man with a cigar always in his face. He was more interested in the television behind the counter than the customers, continually mumbling, full of complaints, yet with me he was ever generous with compliments. He thought I did very good, and that I would work out extremely well. He kept telling his wife to leave me alone, but it was to no avail.

Because I was fond of Mr Pauillac's sister, because she trusted me and was gentle and kind, I detested her husband's lechery. He was always applying extra attention to the young ladies who entered the shop. One day Mr Pauillac was instructing me in how to properly bag bottles. He had observed me doing it wrong. It was the brother-in-law who had taught me differently. In an instant the two were at loggerheads. "You're fired! Get the hell out!" Mr Pauillac shouted. His command could not have escaped the notice of every customer. It didn't make any difference. The prig, his brother-in-law, still hung around the shop when Mr Pauillac wasn't there, doing no more or less work than before.

I was not as happy with Mr Pauillac's treatment of his father. Papa Pauillac was to turn eighty in June. He worked from nine to nine, Monday through Saturday, but he was making some costly errors. Mr Pauillac complained, "Father, you're too old. I don't want you making these mistakes. You're so difficult. You must stop working these long hours. You can't work every day of the week." His father, whose business it was before he gave it to his son, was made to feel ashamed, was visibly hurt. Still, he would ignore his son and the next day he had forgotten it all. He was always telling his son he would quit the shop early that day when his son insisted, but he'd never get around to it and was always the last one out the door.

I enjoyed the job when Mr Pauillac or his mother weren't screaming at someone. I had customers who sought me out for advice.

A Texan, who looked like a professional football player, came to me needing advice one day. He wanted to impress a woman he was meeting that night. The woman loved Champagne and he wanted to bring her the Champagne that would most impress. In 1977 Dom Perignon was regarded most highly. I asked how serious was the woman about her Champagne? If she really knew her Champagnes, she would better appreciate Louis Roederer Cristal, even though in those days it was less known and less expensive than the Dom Perignon. He bought two bottles of the Cristal. The next day he was back in the shop eager to thank me with a hardy handshake, which I accepted, and a hundred dollar bill, which I declined.

Snobs were the funniest. They were caricatures of the snobs that appeared on television's situation comedies. Didn't they ever watch television and see themselves ridiculed? They were the easiest to sell the most expensive wines to; I would sell them the Dom Perignon.

One evening, cold and wet, Mr Pauillac's father asked me to do him a favor and I said certainly. I made a delivery of Champagne to - well, let's just say a ritzy apartment community. The particular apartment I visited was beautifully decorated. The theme was Chinese. On the walls were hung fans and scroll paintings. Behind the low couch carved from cherry wood was an immense Chinese screen. On black lacquered chests were objets d'art, small jade and ivory figurines, and a pair of Chinese funerary horses. To look across the living room through a wall of glass smeared with raindrops, beyond the balcony I saw the sparkling Queensborough Bridge. This beautiful apartment's occupant was a young woman expensively dressed in a lacey white gown that hugged her too plump body. Her carefully coiffured hair, the excessive makeup on her inflated model's face, the perfume that permeated the apartment and made it hard to breathe, she was a Cosmopolitan cover-girl stuffed with pillows. She didn't trust me, eyed me as if I was about to pounce on her and rape her. When I asked about the art that surrounded her, she knew nothing about it, not even that it was Chinese. She counted out the bill to the last penny and gave no tip.

Then there was the old lady who lived at the Waldorf-Astoria. I delivered seven bottles of Harveys Bristol Cream to her, an order she received once a week from Pauillac's. She answered the door in her bathrobe. Pauillac's father told me she never left that room, never dressed, had retired to that room in the hotel and had everything delivered, including her bottles of sherry. She gave a very good tip. On the way out someone approached me from the Waldorf-Astoria staff. They informed me that there was a side entrance and service elevator that I was to use next time.

Another delivery was to a jazz pianist, an elderly, slender African-American who stood in contrast to his living room, which was filled with white furniture, white rug, white walls, everywhere crystal, and at the room's center a grand piano, white. There were also photographs throughout the room of his career in Europe. I recognized famous faces and he started stories, forget where they were going, and gave them up. He was trembling. He also appeared to fear me, as if I might beat and rob him, until he had opened the bottle I brought and tasted it. That very first drink calmed him. He became friendlier and gave me a fair tip.

Just how many years did I work for Pauillac's Spirits? I turned to my notebooks and discovered I worked for them a mere two months. It was bad enough I was taking home too much of my pay in discounted bottles, but then I was cheated out of overtime. I approached Mr Pauillac to complain. It was hard enough to catch him at an unbusy moment. I said, "I want to talk to you about money." I got no further as he interrupted, "Yes, you're getting paid too much. I want it to be arranged that you get a day off in the week." The loss of that sixth day would of course cost me my overtime, an extra $36 that made my income barely enough. That was the turning point at which I decided to quit. The next day I gave them a week's notice.

Suddenly Mr Pauillac had the time for me. He sat me down facing his desk and began with, "I happen to like you." He tried to sell me on the future of the business, but said nothing about my future in that business. He made it sound like my advantage was just to hang around his growing success, yet would not explicate how I could share in that success.

On the 3rd December 2004, I had my twenty-fifth anniversary with AT&T. Twenty-five years have not brought me the wealth of memories I had working two months for the Pauillacs. Today Mr Pauillac is perhaps Manhattan's biggest name in the wine business, and I don't drink wine as often as I used to. It's too expensive.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"